So in the state that didn’t pass it, payday lending went on as before. And this let Zinman compare data from the two states to see what happens, if anything, when payday-loan shops go away. He looked at data on bank overdrafts, and late bill payments and employment; he looked at survey data on whether people considered themselves better or worse off without access to payday loans.
A small percentage of payday lenders have, in the past, threatened delinquent borrowers with criminal prosecution for check fraud. This practice is illegal in many jurisdictions and has been denounced by the Community Financial Services Association of America, the industry’s trade association.
State prosecutors have been battling to keep online lenders from illegally making loans to residents where the loans are restricted. In December, Lori Swanson, Minnesota’s attorney general, settled with Sure Advance L.L.C. over claims that the online lender was operating without a license to make loans with interest rates of up to 1,564 percent. In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is investigating a number of online lenders.
The stakes are very high, not just for the lenders, but for the whole “new middle class.” It seems obvious that there must be a far less expensive way of providing credit to the less creditworthy. But once you delve into the question of why rates are so high, you begin to realize that the solution isn’t obvious at all.
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ZINMAN: And so we have a setup for a nice natural experiment there. You have two neighboring states, similar in a lot of ways. One passed a law, another considered passing a law, but didn’t quite pass it.
The President was promoting some proposed new rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would change how payday lenders operate, or perhaps put them out of business. Which, if payday lenders are as nasty as the President makes them sound, is a good thing, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
That makes plenty of sense in theory. Payday lending in its most unfettered form seems to be ideal for neither consumers nor lenders. As Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago, told a group of finance professionals in a speech last year, “The efficient outcome cannot be achieved without mandatory regulation.” One controversy is whether the bureau, in its zeal to protect consumers, is going too far. Under the plan it is now considering, lenders would have to make sure that borrowers can repay their loans and cover other living expenses without extensive defaults or reborrowing. These actions would indeed seem to curtail the possibility of people falling into debt traps with payday lenders. But the industry argues that the rules would put it out of business. And while a self-serving howl of pain is precisely what you’d expect from any industry under government fire, this appears, based on the business model, to be true—not only would the regulations eliminate the very loans from which the industry makes its money, but they would also introduce significant new underwriting expenses on every loan.
Critics — including President Obama — say short-term, high-interest loans are predatory, trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt. But some economists see them as a useful financial instrument for people who need them. As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau promotes new regulation, we ask: who’s right?
The likelihood that a family will use a payday loan increases if they are unbanked, or lack access to a traditional deposit bank account. In an American context the families who will use a payday loan are disproportionately either of black or Hispanic descent, recent immigrants, and/or under-educated. These individuals are least able to secure normal, lower-interest-rate forms of credit. Since payday lending operations charge higher interest-rates than traditional banks, they have the effect of depleting the assets of low-income communities. The Insight Center, a consumer advocacy group, reported in 2013 that payday lending cost U.S communities $774 million a year.
At the time, McKamey was making $8.45 an hour, working at a supermarket. A $150 ticket was a big problem. He also had an outstanding $45 phone bill. So he ignored the smoking ticket, hoping it’d go away. That didn’t work out so well. He got some letters from the city, demanding he pay the fine. So he went to a payday-loan store and borrowed some money.
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Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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The payday lending industry argues that conventional interest rates for lower dollar amounts and shorter terms would not be profitable. For example, a $100 one-week loan, at a 20% APR (compounded weekly) would generate only 38 cents of interest, which would fail to match loan processing costs. Research shows that on average, payday loan prices moved upward, and that such moves were “consistent with implicit collusion facilitated by price focal points”.
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Zinman and Carrell got hold of personnel data from U.S. Air Force bases across many states that looked at job performance and military readiness. Like the Oregon-Washington study, this one also took advantage of changes in different states’ payday laws, which allowed the researchers to isolate that variable and then compare outcomes.
A study by the FDIC Center for Financial Research found that “operating costs are not that out of line with the size of advance fees” collected and that, after subtracting fixed operating costs and “unusually high rate of default losses,” payday loans “may not necessarily yield extraordinary profits.”
WERTH: I was, and what he told me was that even though Hilary Miller was making substantial changes to the paper, CCRF did not exercise editorial control. That is, he says, he still had complete academic freedom to accept or reject Miller’s changes. Here’s Fusaro:
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MANN: And so, if you walked up to the counter and asked for a loan, they would hand you this sheet of paper and say, “If you’ll fill out this survey for us, we’ll give you $15 to $25,” I forget which one it was. And then I get the surveys sent to me and I can look at them.
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While the banks, which include giants like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, do not make the loans, they are a critical link for the lenders, enabling the lenders to withdraw payments automatically from borrowers’ bank accounts, even in states where the loans are banned entirely. In some cases, the banks allow lenders to tap checking accounts even after the customers have begged them to stop the withdrawals.
With so many lenders online, it’s hard to determine which one offers a better kind of cash loan. Those seeking a cash loan should be aware of lenders advertising online loans for bad credit or loans with no credit check. These kinds of cash loans may have higher interest rates and unusual terms and penalties.
ERVIN BANKS: I don’t see nothing wrong with them. I had some back bills I had to pay off. So it didn’t take me too long to pay it back — about three months, something like that. They’re beautiful people.
For the banks, it can be a lucrative partnership. At first blush, processing automatic withdrawals hardly seems like a source of profit. But many customers are already on shaky financial footing. The withdrawals often set off a cascade of fees from problems like overdrafts. Roughly 27 percent of payday loan borrowers say that the loans caused them to overdraw their accounts, according to a report released this month by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That fee income is coveted, given that financial regulations limiting fees on debit and credit cards have cost banks billions of dollars.
Perhaps you know all this already—certainly, an assuredly mainstream backlash has been building. Last spring, President Obama weighed in, saying, “While payday loans might seem like easy money, folks often end up trapped in a cycle of debt.” The comedian Sarah Silverman, in a Last Week Tonight With John Oliver skit, put things more directly: “If you’re considering taking out a payday loan, I’d like to tell you about a great alternative. It’s called ‘AnythingElse.’ ” Now the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency created at the urging of Senator Elizabeth Warren in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, is trying to set new rules for short-term, small-dollar lenders. Payday lenders say the rules may put them out of business.